When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph. We know almost nothing of his ordinary and socially constructed life, other than that he “was a righteous man.” The brilliance of the gospel as a spiritual text, however, does offer an illuminating glimpse into Joseph’s inner life, his “real” life.
In this sense, Joseph is the opposite of the rest of us. What we know of ourselves and of each other are, for the most part, our exterior lives. Who we take ourselves and each other to be is largely that tissue of dispositions that we have developed since birth as the result of our conformation to the ways of our parents, families, cultures, and societies. Our familial and social mores and our cultural and religious traditions have told us who we are in relation to others and how we are to understand and respond to the world.
Our initial and pretty much singular encounter with Joseph in the gospel, however, shows him to be one who, when the truth requires it, steps out of and goes beyond the directives of his culture and tradition. What we often mistakenly call faith, that is the normal and accepted way to respond to life’s exigencies, requires of Joseph that he divorce his betrothed whom he has discovered to be with a child that is not his. Joseph finds himself at an impasse. On the one hand there is his love and respect for Mary; on the other there is the clear religious and cultural norm of how to behave in the face of the situation in which they find themselves. At such a moment, to act in faith is not to habitually or automatically react based on the norms of the tradition but to dare (as does Abraham) to face a reality that is always, at some point, more than our prescriptions for living, our “recipes for life,” can accommodate.
So, Joseph, as his namesake in Genesis, goes to sleep. The great paradox, as Thomas Merton says, of the awakening of our inner life is that we must first allow our exterior life to darken, to fall asleep. There is an arrogance to the world of “common sense” by which we assert that we know ourselves and we know how to behave. Yet, faith in the scriptural sense is about a life and a call that greatly transcends what we know. It is while sleeping, which is really while in contemplation, that Joseph is “visited” by the angel who tells him to go beyond his fear and to find, in the darkness of faith, the strength to take Mary into his home as his wife.
Thomas Merton says that faith is the ability “to walk on our own unsteady feet.” We are formed traditionally, but we do not come to living in faith, that is our inner self does not awaken, until those traditions become uniquely appropriated in us. The darkness of faith, then, is experienced at the moment when there is nothing or no one, but God alone, who can tell us what to do. We must, of course, be formed throughout our lives in the wisdom of the great traditions, yet, it is when the summons of reality requires of us a response that, as Merton writes, befuddles “our exterior and worldly consciousness” that we begin to truly live in the darkness of faith.
Joseph, as Abraham before him, is a patron for us, as for all times, in his willingness to live by faith, all evidence to the contrary. A distinguishing aspect of our contemporary experience is its pervasive secularity. Unless we choose the security of a religious or atheistic fundamentalism, we live with a constant tension regarding religious belief. It is very difficult to have one’s beliefs threatened on a daily basis by the presence of so many contrary and conflicting perspectives. It is not possible in the face of the diversity that is our continual experience to maintain that our tradition alone is the carrier of the whole and absolute truth. The current extreme reaction and withdrawal into tribalism and nationalism is a manifestation of the discomfort of this tension. Yet, it has always been true that it is encounter with a mysterious and unfathomable other that is the invitation into the inner life and our participation in the Mystery. The other came to Joseph in this inscrutable and frightening experience of his betrothed’s pregnancy. God broke into his life beyond the limits of what his tradition and customs were able to contain. He was able to respond out of his awakened inner life only after the darkening of his exterior life. So, too with us.
In the face of the diverse and secular world in which we live, our faith is challenged with two options. One is to retreat into an illusory sense of certitude that mistakenly sees faith as adherence to the rules, norms, doctrines and beliefs of our own faith tradition. It is to attempt to restore a medieval Christendom (or the hegemony of “the Christian West”) by withdrawal, conformity, and denial and rejection of what is other. The other is to so deepen into the way of our tradition that we can encounter what is other and come to transcend what it is that separates us. It is to engage in what Pope Francis calls “the culture of encounter.” Faith is not faith in our own particular “way”; it is rather faith in the God toward whom our way is intended to draw us. It is also faith in our own unmediated presence to and life in God.
As all the great mystical teachers remind us, this way is a way of darkness to the exterior self, to our taken for granted self-identification. Our true life will never come to be without the difficult and even terrifying experience of coming to “walk on our own unsteady feet.” The faith of Joseph and of the mystical tradition is not conformity. It is actually quite the opposite. We know pretty much nothing of Joseph except for one extraordinary thing: his courage, in the darkness of faith and beyond all his known and accepted norms, to provide a home for his wife and for his Divine Son. God with us is welcomed and known at the very moment when our inner self is awakened in the darkening of our exterior self. All we come to learn and attain, the self we construct through our own efforts, is but a preparation for its own darkening. Then the light that we truly are, our true identity, becomes a vacancy for God and emerges as a light for the world.
The paradox of the illuminative way is, then, that the awakening and enlightening of the inner person goes with the darkening and the blinding of the exterior person. As our inner spiritual consciousness awakens, our exterior and worldly consciousness is befuddled and hampered in its action. This is a preliminary stage, one of transition, for when our minds have been perfectly spiritualized, then there is no failure on the part of the exterior consciousness, which has now become subordinated to and indeed an aspect of inner and contemplative awareness.
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The problem here is that habit is strong and automatism speaks with the authority of a pseudo-conscience. One feels guilt in relaxing and resting in darkness. There is no rational basis for this guilt, once we realize that our “reaching” into the darkness really implies a serious and energetic effort of faith, and that our persisting in arid prayer requires a great deal of courage and patience. But no, we feel that we ought to be following the “safe” routine that has the advantage of being “normal” and “accepted,” rather than advancing into this unknown darkness where we are without support from any other human consciousness, without contact with others, and forced to walk on our own unsteady feet. Not only that, but we feel very much as if we had started walking on water. The impulse to climb back into the boat of secure habit and convention is almost uncontrollable.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, pp. 90-1